Eddie was in the hotel room watching television and reading the New York Times when Nikki returned, some time after dark. She was disheveled, and her shirt was crusty with dried blood. She was walking stiffly; she looked really tired, and really pissed off. That was fine. He was willing to take any abuse she wanted to dish out. Once he had heard about the hostage situation, he had gotten worried. The thought of Nikki in there gave him a flutter of concern deep down. He knew she could take care of herself–she had nearly booted his head off, after all–but the thought of little Poppet in danger was just somehow not right. “Five hours of hostage drama,” he said lightly, masking the fact that he was really glad to see her. “Hell of an afternoon, eh? You hurt?”
She shook her head and sat on her bed. She was clutching her bag; the straps had broken completely at one end, and she had to hold it with both hands to keep it from spilling open.
“How’d you get so messy?” The live coverage of the bank robbery was still on, despite the fact that it had ended in a violent shootout half an hour ago. All of the robbers were dead, apparently. The SWAT boys had had a grand old time taking them out. The report had said no hostages were hurt, but seeing Nikki was still the only thing that made him feel better. He turned the TV off.
“One of them got shot near me.”
“Said on the news they had bulletproof vests.”
“In the face,” Nikki said. She eased herself down, flat onto her back–usually she flopped–and stared at the ceiling, arms stretched out over her head.
Eddie folded the Times. “Did you make the deposit?”
“No.” You bastard, she thought. You bastard, you bastard, you fat disgusting bastard. She wished she could somehow beam the thought into his brain that she didn’t feel like talking. “It was kind of disorganized. I ran out with everybody else.”
“News said police snipers took the hardcases out. Do these sorts of things happen everywhere you go?”
“Seems like it,” Nikki sighed.
“I knew you’d say that, Poppet.”
“I’ll bet you did. Don’t call me Poppet.”
“So what, did you fall or something?”
She pushed herself up on her elbows, slowly. Her back gave a fresh spasm, as if to tell her what Eddie was talking about, but she asked anyway. “What?”
“You’re in pain,” he said.
“My back hurts. I was lying on my face on the floor for five hours. Not exactly therapeutic.”
“You got a bad back?”
“Ever since I broke it.”
“How the hell did you manage that?”
“I was in a truck. It crashed. I went out the window.”
Eddie laughed. “Shit like this does happen around you a lot, doesn’t it? If you tell me the story, I’ll rub your back for you.”
Nikki turned her head to the side, looking at him. “Why would I want your fucking hands on me?”
“Aw, don’t be like that. I don’t offer backrubs to just anyone. And I’ve been trained by the best.”
She looked back up at the ceiling. The anonymous white spackle-patterned hotel room ceiling didn’t cheer her up at all. “I’m sure you have.”
“You say no, but you really mean yes,” he joked. He turned in the chair as if to come to the bed, and started rolling up his sleeves.
“I’ll chop your hands off,” she replied, her voice soft and deadly serious. “First the left and then the right. And I’ll make you eat them. I really, really will. I can’t take any more today, Eddie.”
He didn’t move toward her, thinking about the mini-sword she had, and the tone in her voice that he couldn’t ignore any more. She was past the point where he could tease her. It was also a little bit creepy that she didn’t seem the least bit bothered wearing a shirt covered with someone else’s blood, despite her tendency to be a cleanliness-freak. “Suit yourself. You want I should find a chiropractor for you?”
“No, I’ll be okay. I’ll take a bath.” Nikki sat up painfully and retired to the bathroom. Eddie heard her run her bath, and all was silent for about an hour.
She came out, damp and smelling of soap, and inspected the strap of her bag. The leather had frayed from being mended so many times; she’d have to cut the end off and punch new holes for stitches. She sighed again. The strap couldn’t get much shorter than it was. She pulled out the sewing kit and looked at the woefully thin thread she had.
“Fishing line.” Eddie said.
“Fishing line will work better. To fix that,” he said, pointing. “Want some?”
Nikki’s demeanor softened slightly. “Okay.”
“I’ll trade you for the story about the truck you got tossed out of.”
She slapped the bedspread with her open hand. “Can’t you ever just sit in silence? Jesus Christ.”
“Is it a deal?”
Nikki considered waiting until Eddie had gone to bed, and then just finding the fishing line on her own, if he really had any. She didn’t like telling him things about herself. The only reason she did was because he was going to die anyway. She dumped her things out of the damaged bag and started sorting them. “Okay,” she said finally. “What do you want to know?”
“Well, I know the what: you were in a car crash. Now I want to know the who, when, where, why, and how. Just like the newspaper guys would.”
“The newspaper guys already know,” Nikki said.
“It made the news? That’s even more interesting. So go on. Who?”
“Me and seven other kids. All of them died except me.”
Something like sympathy crossed Eddie’s face, faintly. Very faintly. He didn’t make a joke. “When?”
He was talking like Taiisha, and she didn’t like that. “Three years ago, I guess. It was in Michigan,” she added before he could ask where.
“That why you left?”
“No.” She thought about it. “No, it wasn’t,” she repeated.
Eddie had opened his toolbox, taking out the phone he’d modified for her and a spool of fishing line. “That leaves why and how. How is easier.”
Nikki laughed–one of her amused sighs, actually–and said, “The driver was drunk out of his skull. We all were. We ran off a snowy road in the middle of the night and crashed and rolled the truck. No one even found us until six the next morning.”
“And you got away with a broken back.”
“It wasn’t completely broken, I guess. I remember hearing it crack when I hit the ground, but that’s probably my imagination. I was paralyzed from the waist down for two weeks and had PT for two months.”
“You bounced back from it pretty well. Did it scare you?”
Nikki shrugged, fingering the frayed end of her bag strap. “I don’t know. I was in shock. Everybody I knew at that school was in that truck. I didn’t think about maybe being in a wheelchair. I didn’t care.” She looked at Eddie, surprised to see that he was still paying attention.
He handed her the fishing line. “Now for the hard one. Why?”
“Why were you there? Why did you get in the truck with a drunk driver at the wheel?” He stopped himself, but he wanted to yell, My God, girl, what were you thinking? He felt parental, which combined with his earlier concerns, was distinctly weird. “Sorry. I’m not trying to bust your chops. I’m sure you’ve done that for yourself already. Forget that question.”
Nikki answered anyway. “I wanted a group to belong to, Eddie. That’s all. It was high school. Who wants to be alone, then? I mean, all the time. I was the weird kid, I was the new kid, and so when someone finally acted like they wanted me around and wanted to know about me, I just went…” she trailed off, embarrassed. She was in the same situation now, wasn’t she?